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'911 immunity laws' for underage drinkers

The ideal approach to dealing with the problem is a combination of educating kids about the signs of trouble and decriminalizing calls for help.

January 18, 2010|By Caroline Cook

My town, the sleepy Bay Area suburb of Orinda, isn't in the news often. But it made headlines around the state last year after Joe Loudon, a well-loved high school sophomore, died at a party on Memorial Day weekend.

I don't know if it's because I had known Joe since kindergarten, or because I write opinion pieces for my school newspaper, or because my mom, a lawyer, is representing the teenage host of the party, who is facing criminal charges, but I can't stop thinking about how to prevent another death like Joe's.

There was alcohol at the party where Joe died. The coroner found that he had been drinking -- though not enough to be legally drunk -- but didn't determine a cause of death. A lot of people in town believe that Joe died, at least in part, because other underage drinkers at the party were reluctant to call 911 for fear of being punished.

In all 50 states, only persons age 21 and over can legally possess and consume alcohol. In many of them, including California, partyers who call 911 to get help for an intoxicated or unconscious friend can be prosecuted for violating the law.

Other states, including Colorado, New Jersey and Texas, are more enlightened. They have addressed incidents of underage drinking deaths by enacting "911 immunity laws." The laws grant immunity from prosecution, in certain situations, to an underage person calling 911 in an emergency to help an inebriated friend.

Of course, it might be better if teenagers didn't drink, but they do, and that isn't likely to change. In Northern California, where I live, the 2007 California Healthy Kids Survey found widespread alcohol consumption by students in my high-achieving high school district. Thirty-eight percent of ninth-graders and 68% of 11th-graders admitted consuming alcohol at least once, with 22% and 43%, respectively, having consumed alcohol within the last 30 days. In Los Angeles County, the survey found that 48% of ninth-graders and 63% of 11th-graders had imbibed; 28% and 36% respectively within the last 30 days. These numbers are not far out of line with national statistics.

Binge drinking -- defined by the Healthy Kids survey as the consumption of five or more drinks on a single occasion -- is more prevalent among teenagers than other age groups. This form of drinking is particularly dangerous and may result in unconsciousness, aspiration of vomit, asphyxia, alcohol poisoning and other medical emergencies leading to death. Teens are often skeptical of the warnings they've received about the dangers of alcohol, and so don't recognize when someone is in immediate and critical need of help.

The ideal approach to dealing with the problem is a combination of educating kids about the signs of trouble and decriminalizing calls for help. Cornell University has created a "medical amnesty" program that could be a model. The school provides students with information about how to identify signs of alcohol poisoning and what to do in an alcohol-related medical emergency. A university-wide amnesty policy to protect 911 callers from disciplinary action encourages students to summon help. And substance-abuse counselors work with those involved in alcohol-related emergencies, providing education about alcohol abuse. In addition to a rising rate of 911 calls in alcohol-related emergencies, the number of students involved in alcohol counseling doubled during the study.

California needs to adopt this sort of comprehensive approach to prevent underage, alcohol-related deaths. Education alone won't prevent binge drinking any more than preaching abstinence prevents teen pregnancy. Nor has the threat of punishment done much to prevent teen alcohol use.

When Joe Loudon died, my community lost an amazing student, athlete, volunteer and role model. Since Joe's death, teenagers have died from apparently alcohol-related causes in South Pasadena and Gilroy. How many more will it take before California takes action that could save lives?

Caroline Cook is a junior at Miramonte High School in Orinda, where she writes for her school paper, the Mirador.

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